The hypnotic hum of Neba Solo’s balafon reverberated through the World Music Hall, when the renowned Malian musician performed last Sunday evening. The thirty attendees were treated to the singular sound of the instrument, a type of West African xylophone, played by one of the greatest and most innovative balafon players in the world.
Solo weaved his signature bass-heavy instrumentals with piercing vocals, casting a melodic spell over listeners. Dressed in a traditional brown patterned tunic, Solo, a lanky man with a shaved head and a kind, open face, played his balafon with a kind of intense ease. His head bobbed and shook in time with the complex bass lines fashioned by his lightning hands, but there was calmness in his eyes. The performer took a willful backseat; the focus was the music.
Ingrid Monson, Professor of African-American music and the evening’s host, said she regards Solo as “a wonderful composer” whose virtuosity merits comparison to jazz legend Charles Parker. Reinhardt Schuhmann ’06, a member of the World Music Collective that brings international musicians like Solo to campus, praised his “innovations with technique” and ability to skillfully subvert audience expectation. Many believe African music to be fixed, Schuhmann said, but Solo proves “that the African traditions are more fluid.”
Schuhmann received a crash course in reversing audience expectations after briefly finding himself part of the performance. Solo received sporadic accompaniment throughout the evening from dancer Bocary Dembele, a seemingly incongruous match-up that quickly proved inspired. Dembele soft-shoed with a wide grin, his rubbery limbs matching the dexterity and speed of Solo’s music until movement and sound morphed into one symbiotic entity.
So, when three audience members, including Schuhmann, jumped on stage for an impromptu dance tutorial with Dembele, the results verged on the comic. Schuhmann readily admitted the complex dance moves Dembele attempted to teach him and the other two were, to put it mildly, a little beyond their grasp. Still, he described the experience as “a lot of fun.”
It’s a tribute to Solo’s musical gifts that Dembele’s clowning around with the audience failed to shift the focus from the musician for more than a moment. For the majority of the evening, all eyes fell on Solo’s graceful figure, all ears enchanted by his mellifluous yet incessant tunes. By way of Professor Monson’s translations, Solo, who spoke French and sang in a combination of Senufo and Bambara, told the audience of the influences that inspired him. An ode to trees formed the basis of one piece. Solo saidd, “The shade of the trees is happiness for us [the Malian people].”
The message of his closing song, a tribute to the everyday strength of women around the world, was simple.
“If you say women are worth nothing,” Solo warned, “you must accept that nothing is worth more than a woman.”
“This song is really popular with women in Mali,” he added with a shy grin.
Solo’s background continues to play a prominent role in his life and art. Originally named Souleymane Traoré, Solo was heavily influenced by his upbringing in the Kenedegou region in the south of Mali and the musical skills of his father, a local instrument-maker, musician, and balafon enthusiast. He continues to play the balafon of his father’s era, in which wooden planks are tied together with thin rope and sound is produced through the echoes within large, hollowed-out gourds called calabashes.
Solo’s respect for tradition complements the subtle innovations in tone and texture he has crafted throughout the years. Julie Hunter, a graduate student at Brown who has traveled to Africa to study regional music, said she was “surprised by bass tones” and “resonance on certain pitches.” She complimented Solo’s skillful “ability to relay emotions and ideas” through his music.
Whatever his technical prowess, Solo’s music clearly connected with the audience on a visceral level. The standing ovation that concluded the evening solidified this sentiment. This union of artist and spectator could be seen most clearly as Solo recalled a bizarre occurrence that led to inspiration. During a bout of prolonged illness, news media received an erroneous report that Solo had died in an African hospital. The odd time between the announcement and its eventual retraction provoked Solo to write a musical piece ensuring the world he was, in fact, still alive.
“Without his presence in the world, there would be an absence,” said Sam Petulla ’07. “I’m not ready to do without his presence just yet.”